Shane “The Franchise” Douglas wasn’t on the schedule for the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance Fan Fest. But he lived nearby, so on a cold December evening the 52-year-old wrestler showed up to sign some autographs anyway.
He knew not to expect the grandeur of the old shows, when the steel mills and factories were running full tilt and fans had cash to throw around. Wrestling used to be great back then. Douglas’s family life, his hip, his bank account all used to be great, too. Tonight wouldn’t be great, and he knew it. But for the first time in a long time, he felt the future could be.
Donald Trump is running the nation’s show now, Douglas thought — an all-American entertainer, just like himself. Maybe Douglas could make his own show great again, too.
Trump is not yet president. But many of his keenest supporters are united in the hope that things are about to get dramatically better for them. During the campaign, the president-elect said he would “make possible every dream you’ve ever dreamed” and promised he would “never, ever let you down.” Over the next few months, as campaign showmanship merges with reality, Trump’s ability to hang on to the reins of his populist movement may depend on how well he is able to maintain his hold on people like Douglas.
Douglas has seen the heights and depths of the wrestling business over 30 years. He’s packed stadiums as a headliner in what was then the World Wrestling Federation and grappled in back yards for wadded-up ones and fives. Despite his celebrity past, he sees his story as similar to those of many white working-class folks that filled this hall — the Teamsters Temple, a squat brick building on the outskirts of town — and who helped propel Trump to victory here in Pennsylvania and throughout the Midwest.
It’s a group, he said, for whom this period of waiting — between Trump’s election and his inauguration — is filled with a jittery yet optimistic sense of anticipation.
“Now they — now we — have a champion,” he said. And then he winced, slightly from the throbbing in his hip, a result of the previous night’s wrestling match in Columbus, Ohio.
At the Teamsters Temple, Douglas spent the evening wedged at a table between two old pals, wrestling legends Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and Nick “Big Bully” Busick. He signed a handful of autographs, posed for a few photos and offered his skeptical assessments of a new generation of indie wrestlers trying to make a name for themselves that night.
“If you saw a guy running at you, would you have your hands down like that?” Douglas said over the din of a few hundred fans. “No, you’d protect yourself.”
He added: “The fans don’t care if this is all real or fake, but they want to be entertained, and they don’t want to be insulted.”
Trump’s critics look at the president and see a con man — someone who has made a lot of empty promises to struggling Americans, and those nostalgic for a time and place that may never really have existed. They see steps like encouraging the Carrier heating and air conditioning company to keep a few hundred jobs in Indiana as stunts, and fully expect Trump’s supporters to feel nothing but disappointment once they see it for what it really is.
Douglas rejects this view and thinks it’s condescending. He’s no dummy: He can spot an act better than most. But he also appreciates a good one. And he thinks Trump’s belligerent shtick has value.
“In my business, my job is to make people believe they are seeing something they’re not seeing,” he said. “If I throw a punch that looks like s--- and the guy falls down, the fans will boo. . . But if you land that punch right, the fans will buy a T-shirt, they’ll buy tickets the next time around. The optic is very important. Optics can drive an economy.”
There are superficial reasons why a pro wrestler might have some affinity for Trump. The president-elect counts Vince and Linda McMahon, the longtime bosses of World Wrestling Entertainment, as friends and major donors to his charitable foundation. Trump once tried to shave Vince’s head in the WrestleMania ring, and last month he nominated Linda to be the head of the Small Business Association.
“I met Trump once,” said Douglas’s mentor, Dominic DeNucci, an 84-year-old former tag-team wrestling champ. “Vince McMahon was awarding him with a hall of fame ring. They’re both crooks. But I like Trump.”
But for Douglas, his waning economic opportunities in western Pennsylvania were what drew him to a man who promised to bring back what he saw as the good old days. Both he and Steamboat were disappointed by Fan Fest. Steamboat, who no longer fights because of what he called a “brain bleed” a couple years ago, agreed to make a cameo appearance in a match, yanking two men out of the ring and bashing their heads together for show — but was unhappy with the payout.
“We used be able to pull in $2,000 or $1,800 at an event like this,” Douglas said. “Now we’d be lucky to get a couple hundred.”
Squeezing into Douglas’s 2008 VW Jetta with 200,000 miles on the odometer, the two men drove through Lawrenceville, a neighborhood that Douglas barely recognized, despite living about 30 miles away his entire life. Once a series of bombed-out rowhouses, he said, it had been transformed into $14 cocktail bars and a gourmet hot dog restaurant. Progress, perhaps, but a world apart from the crowd back at Teamsters Temple.
“I guarantee you none of the people in that room are benefiting from it,” he said.
Over a bourbon at a favorite bar from his younger days, he told his story. Born Troy Allan Martin, Douglas was the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a degree in history and political science from Bethany College in 1986. He pondered medical school in the Caribbean but had already broken into pro wrestling and decided he couldn’t afford not to stay with it.
At one point, he wrestled as “Dean Douglas,” lecturing fans at a chalkboard before body slamming his opponents. At another, he taught middle school on the side for extra money.
“People think all wrestlers are millionaires,” he said. “It’s really a blue-collar existence.” Meanwhile, Douglas was supporting a family of four — and developing an Oxycontin habit.
How the hell did this happen, he remembers thinking in the midst of the five years it took to get off the pain pills. He’d never even smoked pot. The Food and Drug Administration had cleared this stuff for consumption. After 29 broken bones and 19 surgeries it had been marketed to him by his doctor as a “miracle drug.”
“I’d never really trusted the government, but this made it magnified a million times,” he said. “I lost my marriage over this.” He looked down at his beer, his glacial blue eyes vibrating.
But he’s alive, and he’s scraping by — and feeling optimistic, suddenly, about establishing a new life outside the ring.
A couple of years ago, he got a call from Bill Townsend, a pioneering Internet entrepreneur, with the idea of creating a new wrestling organization — one in which the wrestlers would be salaried employees with health benefits. Douglas, though, would be a front-office guy, the chief operating officer.
The hope is to lure major talent away from the McMahons’ WWE and challenge its dominance in wrestling. People have tried doing this for years with little success. And Douglas knows the odds may be long. But he’s feeling good about the promise of tax breaks from a Republican administration.
“With Trump getting elected,” he said. “I’m a thousand percent more confident.”
During a visit to DeNucci’s home, Douglas laughed as his salty mentor ranted about “freeloaders” and described President Obama with a racial slur. (“I hope that [expletive] dies in office,” DeNucci added.) He blasted him for “apologizing” for America overseas.
But neither really had that much to say about the outgoing president. They preferred to talk about Trump, a guy who hasn’t even taken office yet and is already shaking things up.
The only question for these two old showbiz pros was whether the president-elect can really keep it up once he actually has the job. They said they know that not everything he says will be true, and that not everything will be as it seems. But they don’t care if it’s all real or fake, they just are sick of feeling insulted.
“You know what I’ve been thinking about?” Douglas said to DeNucci. “How you always would say, ‘Remember, kid, you can have the best ring music, the best ring jacket, but when the music stops and you take that jacket off, you better know how to wrestle.’ ”